Europe a Wonderland for Arab Lit?

Youssef Bazzi has an enthusiastic essay in Banipal 36: “Europe, our guide to reading our Arabic literature.”

Yes, with a double “our.”

Let us grant, for a moment, that his basic argument is true: 1) Europeans adore Arabic literature (from a good place in their broad, cultured, European hearts); 2) Arabs do and should write for Europeans first, Arabs second; 3)  Europe is the “sidewalk” of Arabic literature (Arab sidewalks are too dirty, for God’s sake); thus, 4) we will forget the “slogans of ‘colonialism,’ ‘cultural alienation,’ ‘dependency,’ ‘discrimination’ etc. and talk about a European celebration of literature….”

Here “colonialism” is in quotes (his, not mine), as though it were a faux phenomenon, a wisp of the past to be brushed off our faces like a small, ugly spiderweb.

But, lest I forget, we’re granting his basic argument is true.

And indeed, when I was in Europe (Paris) last week, I did see a number of books written by Arabic-sounding authors. Many of them—as Bazzi said—seemed to be women (Bazzi doubts the quality of many of these women without touching, with his pen, the quality of the men). Could this phenomenon be similar to the recent celebration of Latin American lit? The discovery and veneration of greats like Borges and Bolano? Has Europe fallen in love with the best of Arabic literature?

Or does the fact that many of these writers are of dubious quality (Bazzi grants this) and that quality doesn’t even seem to matter (Bazzi implies this as well) lead us in another direction, one that can include “colonialism,” “cultural alienation,” “dependency,” and “discrimination”?

On New Year’s Eve in Paris, I attended a party with an (Egyptian) friend. At some point after I left, my friend told me that the conversation turned to literature. With an educated, international group, why not?

At some point, a Dutchman living in France began to lecture my friend on Egyptian literature. (My friend!) The Dutchman insisted that there was not much real Arabic literature at all, just “Omar Khayyam and Naguib Mahfouz.” He insisted that Naguib Mahfouz had passed most of his life in France and that Mahfouz had written Leo Africanus.

I do not think that the man was drunk at this point.

He insisted that he would prove all this to my friend; that he would bring Leo Africanus and show her. (When he arrived home he must’ve found it was written, of course, by Amin Maalouf.)

It’s so dull of me to repeat, but isn’t this yet another tentacle of Orientalism? The ownership of Arabic literature is at stake; the molding of Arabic literature is contested. Europeans (and Americans, sure) fear the Arabs and so must know the Arabs. They must mold the Arabs. Why else insist on so many “liberated” women writers at every turn, regardless of what they’ve written?

But, yes, I forgot, we were granting that Bazzi’s argument was true.

This part may be true: Many Arabic artists write for a European, not an Arab, audience. We’ll except my favorites: Sonallah Ibrahim cannot be writing for Europeans. Muhammad Khuddayir cannot, cannot, cannot. But Youssef Bazzi must be writing for a European audience, shaping his prose to their particular palates.

What does this herald for Arab culture, if novelists write primarily for the rich, the European, the distant?

Ah, but there I am again with my “colonialism,” my “cultural alienation,” my “dependency” and “discrimination.” Tsh.

Reading the issue now; liking Shawqi Shafiq.



Categories: Banipal, book fairs, literary critics

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